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Emeregency Roadside Assistance Works as Security Back-Up

by Cheryl Jensen

Emergency roadside assistance programs, offered by automobile manufacturers to help drivers whose vehicles break down, serve as a kind of security blanket. They can turn a potentially traumatic experience into a minor inconvenience, especially for women who are particularly vulnerable when stranded with a flat tire or an empty gas tank.

Although emergency roadside assistance programs are fairly widespread (78 percent of new-vehicle owners have coverage), one-third of consumers who have the programs don’t know they have them. And because they are unaware, they spend money to buy the very services that are available to them free.

These findings are from the 1998 J.D. Power and Associates Emergency Roadside Assistance Study, which evaluated consumers’ experiences with these programs over the past year among original owners of 1997-model-year vehicles.

Power has conducted the study for three years, and awareness has stayed the same during that time according to Jerry Griffith, research supervisor for the Auto Service Group at J.D. Power. People still do not know what benefits they have, so they cannot take full advantage of them.

Anyone who buys a new vehicle should know that almost all manufacturers offer some type of coverage, but the Asian makes have taken a different approach, Griffith reported. The Japanese luxury brands (Acura, Infiniti, and Lexus) offer coverage to every buyer, and there is a high level of awareness of emergency roadside assistance program among those buyers. However, Griffith told us that buyers of the non-luxury Japanese nameplates (Honda, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota) are offered roadside assistance only with the purchase of an extended warranty, also called a service contract, resulting in a far lower level of awareness. (Suzuki has no roadside assistance program, and Mazda offers it only for the Millennia and MPV.)

“As a group, compared to the other origin makes (the Europeans and domestics), they are less likely to provide coverage or may provide less coverage,” Griffith said.

When Power looked at manufacturers that provide coverage to everyone, the survey found that Audi does the best job of making its customers aware of its program, with an awareness level of 90 percent; Mitsubishi customers were the least aware at 46 percent.

When Power looked at the non-luxury Japanese manufacturers that provide coverage only with the purchase of an extended warranty, awareness on the part of consumers — who paid extra for the protection of an extended warranty — was as low as 26 percent.

After Audi, the highest level of consumer awareness was among the luxury makes: 87 percent for Acura owners, 86 percent for Cadillac and Land Rover owners, 84 percent for BMW and Jaguar owners, and 83 percent for Mercedes-Benz owners.

American manufacturers tend to fall in the middle. The industry average for awareness is 66 percent. For Ford owners, awareness is at 60 percent, Daimler-Chrysler is at 60 percent, and Chevrolet is at 69 percent.

The study also looked at the reasons people called for help and found that 32 percent of customers call because of flat tires, 22 percent for towing, 22 percent for lockouts, 11 percent for jump starts, and 10 percent for other mechanical problems.

Most programs provide services such as towing, jump starts for dead batteries, flat-tire change, fuel delivery, and lockout service. Emergency roadside assistance programs usually are for the same length of time as the vehicle’s warranty.

“The most common warranty length is three years or 36,000 miles, and most of the ERA programs extend for that period,” Griffith said.

Programs vary in what they cover and under what circumstances. Some may provide towing when a car is disabled for any reason; others may cover towing only for warranty-related breakdowns. So read all information provided carefully. Consumers should also be aware that purchasing additional coverage, such as membership in the American Automobile Association (AAA), also may have limitations. AAA membership, for example, limits members to four service calls a year (five after five years of membership).

Sometimes the manufacturer provides the services; other times the manufacturer subcontracts to an independent company (such as AAA or various local garages) that provides services. The Power study found that it takes independents on average 36 minutes to arrive at the scene with help, compared with 53 minutes for manufacturer-sponsored programs.

Manufacturers can make consumers aware of roadside assistance programs by putting decals on the vehicle’s window, mentioning it in the owner’s manual (which few people bother to read), or providing a special card to carry in a wallet.

“Sometimes they in-tend the sales force to convey that message, and whether that happens depends on the particular manufacturer and dealership,” said Griffith.

In addition to all this, Audi mails owners a welcome package after delivery that includes an Audi roadside assistance guide, and its quarterly newsletters also mention the service, according to an Audi spokesman. Dealerships must provide customers with the toll-free phone number for roadside assistance. All this helps to explain 90 percent awareness on the part of Audi owners.

How can consumers learn about programs? For the vehicle you already own, look in the owner’s manual for info about an emergency roadside assistance program, or call the manufacturer’s customer assistance line, which is usually a toll-free number.

If you are shopping for a vehicle, ask the salesperson, call the customer assistance line, or look on the Web. When researching the services covered by these programs, pay particular attention to, and ask questions about, limitations.